Just Curious: Essays by Cullen Murphy. Houghton Mifflin, 248 pp., $21.95.
January 8, 1995        

Here are some maxims I have laid by, illustrating the inescapable relativity of this world: “To the pure, all things are pure.” “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.” “Nothing is good or evil but thinking makes it so.” “Anything, however dull, becomes interesting as soon as Cullen Murphy notices it.”

“Anything?” asks the reader, cocking a skeptical eyebrow. How about the United States Tax Court Reports, to take one of Murphy’s topics in Just Curious? Or the Commerce Business Daily, to take another? The Federal Sentencing Guidelines Manual? The University of Chicago’s Hittite Dictionary? The Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report?

Yes, anything. To each of these forbidding publications, and a good many other unpromising subjects, Murphy devotes an essay somewhere between droll and rollicking. Actually, this will come as no surprise to readers of The Atlantic Monthly, to which Murphy is a regular contributor and of which he is managing editor. (He is also co—author of the prepossessingly titled Rubbish: The Archaeology of Garbage and the writer of “Prince Valiant,” the comic strip.)

I warmed to the book early on, when I encountered Murphy’s spoof of a certain (unnamed but unmistakable) New York Times social science writer, whom I have long contemplated with bemusement. This intrepid reporter is forever returning from the field to trumpet such discoveries as “Hard Work Pays Off More Often Than Laziness, Researchers Contend”; “Love a Key Variable in Marriage, Therapists Believe”; and “Maverick Theorist Links Immorality, Guilt.” Murphy’s own investigation produces a less dramatic result: “A recent survey (by me) of recent social science findings, the results of which are being reported here for the first time, turned up no ideas or conclusions that can’t be found in Bartlett’s or any other encyclopedia of quotations.” Just as I suspected.

Most of Murphy’s subjects are too obscure for even such mild sarcasm, however; rather than gently deflationary, he is usually gently inflationary. A retired civil servant, for example, founder of the new discipline of “panetics”— the study of the causes, nature, and measurement of suffering— who proposes a basic unit of unhappiness, the “dukkha” (from Pali, the Buddha’s language): an irresistible target? Murphy has some fun, but also lets Dr. R.G.H. Siu, the prophet in question, have his say, and we cannot help admiring the gentleman even while being amused by his project.

Murphy’s two longest essays achieve a similar effect. He attends the International Ventriloquist Convention in Kentucky, an annual gathering of several hundred people who, in the words of one practitioner, “like to talk to themselves and play with dolls.” Probably the early Tom Wolfe would have written up this event as a freak show, and probably that would have been funny. But Murphy’s account yields a quieter, truer enjoyment.

Much the longest piece in Just Curious is a history of the hundred-year-old effort by the Dominican order to produce a complete edition of the works of Saint Thomas Aquinas, perhaps their most celebrated member. I doubt many other nonspecialists could so entertainingly reconstruct the misadventures of a medieval manuscript, or describe with such informed sympathy the sometimes very eccentric erudition of these scholar-monks. Although a thoroughly secular adult (with a Franciscan boyhood to boot), I was surprised to find myself rooting for the doughty Blackfriars as they struggle against diminished resources, attrition, and the spirit of the age to complete their immense labor.

But the book’s staple, and its keenest pleasure, are three dozen or so short flights of fancy— no, make that “flights of fact.” Some odd bit of information will stray into Murphy’s ken, and his whimsy starts whirring. He reads somewhere that a mere nine words account for 25 percent of all spoken or written English, and the list of texts he compiles at random to check this intriguing claim is a hoot. He discovers a campaign to promote E-Prime, a version of English that eschews all forms of the verb “to be,” and informs us, after five perfectly normal-sounding pages on the subject, that the foregoing five pages have been written in E-Prime. I went up in smoke over his musings on the history of spontaneous human combustion. I nearly had a heart attack over his imagined monologue as a Type A personality determinedly and hyper-efficiently turning himself into a Type B. His ringing (clinking, anyway) defense of the penny against its threatened extinction is priceless. And his riff on the Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report just killed me.

“In search of a telephone number and an address recently, I flipped through a new edition of the three-volume Encyclopedia of Associations when next I looked up, an hour or so had gone by,” begins a typical Murphy essay. The man leads a charmed life, obviously. And so, for a few hours, will readers of this book.